So awe-inducing is the talent onstage in Mean Girls, now playing to packed houses at the August Wilson Theatre in Manhattan, that you could almost lose sight of the musical itself. The singing is sky-high; the cast is starry. The dancers, a galloping cavalry led by Casey Nicholaw’s choreography, have limitless, inventive energy. Author Tina Fey’s one-liners fall like a tart rain — zing zing zing — powered by the often brilliant lyrics of Nell Benjamin and the hard-charging music of Jeff Richmond.
It’s bright, often pink, often frothy, but it’s a comic “cautionary” tale that gets you thinking almost as much as it gets you laughing. Which is a lot.
That is to say, Tina Fey does it again. Mean Girls blows your hair right back. The audience (many of whom had clearly seen it several times, already had favorites in the cast) went nuts for two and a half hours. And I expect it to be a favorite for years, especially among middle-school, high-school, and college women, who are living through or just lived through the throes of high-school madness. It has too much truth. It sees the 2006 film Mean Girls and raises it. A ton.
Before things start, we feel the mean. Walls are plastered with images from somebody’s “Burn Book,” an album of schoolmate head shots scribbled over in hot-color markers with insults: “You could live off the food in his braces” or “Jessica Sampson can’t contour for s—” or “Dawn Schweitzer is a fat VIRGIN.”
At North Side High School in Chicago, we first meet Damian (Grey Henson) and Janis (Barrett Wilbert Reed), “starter companions” for Cady (Erika Henningsen), a home-schooled kid recently from Kenya. In “Where Do You Belong?” they warn her that “You’ll be judged on sight and made to fit/ So pick a clique and stick to it.”
Henson is a crazy powerhouse, great dancer, and tireless voice, plus a genius of comedy; Reed is all that, plus she gets to act later, when she gets sucked into the maelstrom. Cady is going to make all the wrong choices. She’ll face the big question – “How far would you go to be popular and hot?” – and mess up. Henningsen persuasively travels Cady’s arc from nice to mean – “Mean is easier than nice,” we’re told – to chastened. Damian and Janis are good counselors: “When you feel attacked/ That’s just a feeling, not a fact” and “The world doesn’t end, it just feels like it does.” Of course, as we also learn, your frontal cortex doesn’t fully mature until you’re 25, so high-schoolers are the least likeliest of people to get some distance on their feelings.
Cady tries to get in with The Plastics (“shiny, fake, and hard”), the acid focal point of the show. As Regina, the “Apex Predator,” Taylor Louderman has a brassy ruthlessness – and the number “Apex Predator” is hilarious, with its biological extended metaphor reducing all high-school life to a food chain, dancers hilariously mimicking jungle beasts and raptors. Regina’s sidekicks are “dumb girl” Karen (Kate Rockwell), and beta-girl Gretchen (Ashley Park), self-esteem-challenged and over-eager to please.
Park just about runs away with the show, with her big number “What’s Wrong With Me?” that speaks the anxieties of a million high-schoolers. Park won many hearts with this line: “Sometimes I feel like an iPhone without a case. I have a lot of good functions, but at any time I could just shatter.”
Many are the telling tunes. In “Stupid With Love,” math whiz Cady plays dumb so a boy will talk to her. As the meanness escalates, Regina sings “Someone Gets Hurt,” and those she hurts sing “Revenge Party.” My favorite might have been “Stop,” in which Damian and Janis counsel Cady to get off social media.
Janis’ big number, “I’d Rather Be Me,” which rejects compromise-burdened faux friendships, got the biggest applause (“I’d rather be me/ Than be with you”). Be strong enough to love yourself, don’t get dirty (“I was offered bad choices,” sings a sadder-but-wiser Cady, “but I could have said no”), turn away from hurtful entanglements, no matter how attractive. The largely young, largely female audience related powerfully, as did everyone else.
Yes, these are the expected, perhaps too-predictable takeaways from Mean Girls. And maybe I’m a mean boy, but I found the musical funnier and more interesting when folks were plotting and having meaner-than-thou contests. Tina Fey does such things very well. Yet I’ve also parented some young adults through high school, and, believe me, Mean Girls nails too much too well to be simply a froth-fest. Yes, it’s warm and ends with smiles, but it does explore the hard side of being young. And it is a Broadway board-buster. The final number is “I See Stars,” and we all sure did.
August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 54th Street, New York. Tickets: $124-$429. Information: meangirlsonbroadway.com.